Home About Services Support News and Events Community Activities Partners Case Studies Contact
News and Events
April 8 , 2005: SPIT: The New Spam Internet Phone Calls Open the Door to Junk Voice Mails (Memphis Business Journal)

By Michael Sheffield

The idea of having a phone system that allows you to send and receive e-mails and voice-mails with one device and never miss an important call again sounds like a dream come true.

That’s the case with voiceover Internet protocol (VoIP) phones and the systems are catching on nationwide, including in Memphis.

As with every new and exciting technology, there are drawbacks to VoIP systems, which relay calls over the Internet. That means it's possible to receive spam through voice-mail as easily as e-mail. And it's already happening to some users who have adopted the technology.

The VoIP spam, called SPIT (Spam over Internet Telephony), could allow spammers to send out thousands of unsolicited voice mails with the press of a button.

Mahathi Kondapati, a technology analyst at the FedEx Institute of Technology, says the institute, which uses a hybrid of traditional phone service and VoIP, says the technology could potentially make a telemarketer's job easier.

“They can make one call and trigger every number on their list because every number is preceded with an IP address like any other computer,” she says. “The technology is great, but it's also a little scary.”

Basically, any spam that can be sent over e-mail, ranging from $10 Rolexes, mortgage and insurance offers and Viagra, can be sent over the line and can be sent in the form of a voice-mail or e-mail.

Most local providers like VO2 Networx and Lan One, as well as Time Warner, which recently unveiled its own business class VoIP product, can cut down on the problem because they route the calls through an Intranet system that filters spam anyway.

Garner Bailey, general manager of Time Warner Telecom, says the Internet is really where spam is picked up and if Intranet is used instead, it cuts down.

“If a company wants to keep that from happening, you’ve got to keep a firewall between you and the Internet,” he says.

Kondapati, who also uses VoIP at home, says she personally has to delete at least two or three junk voice-mails every day, but she's taken her own steps at prevention.

“As a home user, I can unblock the numbers I want and block everyone else. But that way, you might lose somebody,” she says. “You take a chance with that. You can either choose to take time every day to delete messages, or you can just give out your number to people you know.”

All of the benefits of VoIP seem to outweigh the problems so far. Just as easily as a user can be spammed, the same features can be beneficial.

One e-mail or voice-mail can be sent to every number on a user’s list, and a total system can allow a user to ring certain numbers in sequence to an office phone then to a cell phone and finally to voice-mail. Unknown numbers can either be unceremoniously dropped or ring directly to voice-mail.

Time Warner’s package also allows group users in multiple cities to call each other without long distance charges. Kondapati says she can call her own family in London without long distance charges as well from her home system.

For new buildings or businesses, VoIP also allows all voice and data to be
sent through one “pipe” instead of having to have separate connections for voice and data, which saves money.

The problem SPIT may provide for spammers is that most spammers only get paid if the e-mails they send are read or a dummy e-mail address is clicked on. If those e-mails are deleted without being read, they don't make money. If
SPIT is deleted without being read or listened to, the spammers’ tricks could backfire.

Some companies like AT&T, which actually coined the term SPIT, have come up with “SPIT killers” and are taking an aggressive approach. These “SPITtoons” can flag and stop viruses and spammers as soon as they are detected.

Bill Ray, vice president of external affairs for BellSouth, which is working on its own VoIP service, says telecom laws for VoIP are still being written. Issues like handling 911 service are still being worked out between the traditional phone companies and the upstarts. With traditional service, when 911 is dialed, the call's location is immediately known.

VoIP users have to register their lines to make sure 911 service works. Wireless companies faced the same issue last year before E-911 was created.

“As we move forward, there is some confusion about how 911 is going to work and the industry has to get together to work that out,” he says. “There have
got to be some short order decisions made. If you look at the forecasts of VoIP, it’s significant and is catching on.”

As with every new technology, Kondapati says, the industry got excited about VoIP and released it to the public without all of the possible security measures.

“When technology is brought into the market, I think the security measures should come out with it,” she says. “Right now, they put it out there, wait for
an attack to happen and then they come up with the solution. It’s repeating
with VoIP too.”

Another drawback of the service is it relies on electricity, where traditional phone service works as long as phone lines are still up. Most businesses have generators and battery backups in case they lose electricity. That's beneficial to the banks, insurance companies and other important businesses that may have VoIP service.

That security, however, may not protect against hackers, and if one of the providers gets hacked, suddenly all of the numbers and IP addresses can be made public.

Not only could that lead to an unmitigated spam and SPIT orgy, but it could also lead to hackers, spammers and SPITters using IP addresses as jumping off points for attacks of other systems.

“Tracking them back could be nearly impossible because they can fake an
IP address, or just use someone else’s, do their work and then abandon it,”
she says.

Despite the problems with VoIP, Kondapati says the technology as a whole, when used properly, can be as beneficial as anything that has been introduced at this point. Users and providers just need to make sure they have their backs, fronts and sides covered.

“The downtime will be expensive if the system goes down, and they'll wish
they did take steps to prevent it,” she says. “With great technology, there are always people who want to misuse it, so you have to take steps to
prevent that.”

CONTACT staff writer Michael Sheffield at 259-1722 or

« Back to News & Events